When Rachel Abbott wrote her first novel, Only the Innocent, she didn’t intend to publish it, but her family and friends who liked the book convinced her to publish it, so she released it in November 2011.
Three months later, Only the Innocent hit #1 spot in the entire Amazon UK Kindle store. It remained in the top spot for four weeks, eventually becoming Amazon UK’s second bestselling self-published title of 2012.
Today, Rachel Abbott has six novels under her belt, and she has sold over 2 million copies of her books. How did she manage to go from amateur writer to one of the most popular crime fiction authors in UK? Find out in our interview with her.
What is your professional background?
I worked as a systems analyst, and then founded an interactive media company, developing software and websites for the education market. I sold the company in 2000 and continued to work for the company that bought my shares for five years. I moved from England to Italy, where we restored a 15th-century Italian monastery. For a time my husband and I operated it as a venue for weddings and holidays after I retired – just for a bit of fun.
How did you get into writing crime fiction?
I had always been an avid reader of this genre, and had a few ideas that I believed would make good stories. Then I spent a snowy winter in Italy and finally found the time to put one idea I had into action!
Why did you decide to self-publish your books? What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
I originally had no intention of even trying to get my book published. I wrote it for my own enjoyment, but I was under pressure from friends and family to see if I could get a publishing deal. I sent it to a few agents, who were fairly positive in their responses, but felt that it wasn’t the right time for this kind of book. When I saw that I could upload to the Kindle, I just decided to give it a try – and luckily for me, it worked (after a huge amount of marketing effort, though). The pros of self-publishing are that as the author you have complete control over your books and how they are priced, marketed, what the covers look like, etc. You also receive a much higher proportion of the income. The cons are that it is much more difficult to get your books into book shops and there is a huge amount of additional work involved in promoting and preparing your books for publication.
You have a literary agent. What are the benefits of having an agent as a self-published author?
Having an agent is wonderful, as any successful writer will attest to. When one writes alone, plots alone and works alone having an agent who is interested and committed to that work is a huge benefit. My agent offers considerable editorial input, liaises with booksellers on my behalf, sells foreign rights for my books – the list is endless and I genuinely couldn’t have done it without her.
A lot of self-published writers edit their books themselves, but you hire editors to help you with that. Why do you think having an editor is important?
The editing process can be long and difficult but the result is always an improved book and a self-published author having that kind of creative professional input is invaluable. I don’t think it is possible to edit your own books. The editor looks at the structure, the pace, the characterization. As the writer, you are inevitably too close to the work. Many writers think that the copy-edit is the ‘edit’ but that comes much later, when the structure of the story is working. Even that is much better done by a third party who finds it easier to identify inconsistencies in style, repeated words, etc.
What is your process for creating book covers and what role do you think the covers of your books played in their success?
I am fortunate enough to have a cover designer that I know well. When I ran the interactive media company all those years ago, he worked for me. I sometimes (but not always) have an initial idea of what I want on the cover and quite often I search photo libraries for the core image – but the cover goes through several iterations before we get exactly what we are looking for. Of course, we maintain the same style for all the covers of books in the same series, using the same fonts and title layouts so that the books are hopefully instantly recognizable.
How do you price your books? What factors do you take into consideration?
I have retained the same pricing structure for a few years now. The price was based on £2.99, but then there was a change to the VAT, so that meant that for the same return I would have to charge £3.48. I was concerned about the impact this would have on sales, but it really didn’t seem to make a difference. The advantage of charging a reasonable price – which is considerably less than some of the books from the traditional publishers – is that books can then go into special deals on Amazon with a substantial price reduction. This has always worked well for me, and I try to get the books priced at 99p during the promotions – although this is sometimes outside my control. With so many books available for 99p it does mean that the number one position in the Amazon chart is more elusive than it used to be, but I want to offer my books at an accessible, but fair, price.
How do you promote your books? How much time do you spend on marketing? What marketing methods do you find to be most effective?
I use a range of different promotion techniques, and these tend to change with each book as trends vary from year to year. I always write a marketing plan so that I know where I need to focus, but increasingly I think about my existing readers as a priority. They are a faithful and supportive crowd, and they deserve my attention. With this in mind, I do try to engage them on Facebook and Twitter, but I also have a mailing list which means I can contact readers via an occasional newsletter. I probably now spend about 30% of my time on marketing over the course of a year, but around the time of a new book release it is closer to 70%.
How did people (your readers, other writers, and the media) react to you being a self-published (as opposed to traditionally published) author?
I am fairly sure that the readers either don’t know or don’t care that I am self-published. All they are interested in is whether or not they enjoy the book. Most writers are interested in how it works, although many of them throw their hands up in horror at the amount of time I have to spend on the marketing. Some – a very small number – can be a bit scathing and are under the impression that I am only self-published because I can’t get a traditional deal. That’s not true, but everybody is entitled to an opinion. With regard to the media, I think things are changing. I am now getting reviews in popular magazines, and have been invited to talk on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book as well as many regional radio shows.
What is it like to be a bestselling author? What are the pros and cons of literary success? What impact did it have on your life?
It’s exciting! I can’t really see any cons – although I suppose that when all my friends are meeting for coffee on a Friday morning I always say no, because it’s the middle of a working day for me. But generally being a writer makes each day different and interesting. As my books have become more successful, I also get asked more regularly to attend events, which is wonderful because I have an opportunity not only to meet other authors that I have enjoyed for years, but also I meet readers. So it’s all good!
What are the most important lessons that you have learned throughout your writing career so far?
Without a doubt the most important lesson has been that I need to trust my editor. When I first received feedback from an editor on my book, I was shocked at the level of detail she went into, and the number of rewrites that I had to do. I think I actually argued that she was wrong! She wasn’t. I now accept that when my editor says ‘the pace has dropped here – you need to fix it’ – she is invariably right.
What would be your top 3 tips for Writers in Charge readers who want to self-publish fiction?
- Be certain that you are prepared to devote the time and effort to marketing your book if you want it to be a success.
- Pay for a professional editor – you may think you don’t need one, but you probably do.
- Enjoy it. Don’t just write because you think you’re going to make a lot of money – the chances are that you won’t, so you have to do it because you love it.
What’s next for you? What exciting projects are you working on that we should know about?
I’m currently working on two books – one is another Tom Douglas novel, and that one takes priority because I know it’s what my readers want, but the other is a stand-alone novel which I am definitely going to write, but will have to squeeze in between my other writing.